From engineers, planners, scientists and medical professionals, to policy analysts and academics, technical ‘experts’ play a critical role in most conversations and consultations.
Can they get lost in the detail – yes.
Can they become too focussed on a narrow set of options and possibilities – yes.
Can they forget how to speak plain English – absolutely.
BUT … before you think this article is going to talk about the usual way of ‘managing’ technical people in consultations, think again.
For most of my career I have developed and facilitated engagement processes where the purpose is to get the most from communities and external stakeholders. Yet, unless we get the most from the technical people, the community discussion can be at risk of becoming one-dimensional. It’s the same risk if there were just the technical people in the room.
But when our thinking moves to ‘managing’ the technical person, we miss a critical reframe that is needed.
It is hard for someone who has spent many years studying and then many more years practising their craft, to be put in a position where they feel like their work is being ‘assessed’ by a group of lay people. For people passionate about their chosen field, it is understandably confronting, at times belittling and often frustrating … so their resistance to engage is likewise understandable.
In many instances the engagement practitioners become the translators; we help make the technical world accessible to the public. Yet, what if we had another role to play?
One of the most toxic environments we can set up in consultations is one of ‘right and wrong’. When consultations feel like the technical teams’ work is being criticised and assessed as either being ‘right and wrong’, the sessions become a recipe for defensiveness, arrogance and invites a nasty battle of intellect that few people win. Indeed, the world of ‘right or wrong’ sets everyone up for a binary conversation that guarantees there is only one winner. But what is the alternative?
The alternative is not about ‘right and wrong’ but ‘and/both’.
In many situations, both the community view and the technical view are right. The planned infrastructure could be designed in the right way, but it may not work for how the community live; the planned program may be the most efficient way to deliver a service, but it may not account for the human journey through that service.
When we set up consultations as ‘right or wrong’, we make one critical error in our approach to engagement and facilitation … that error is not understanding what we are actually asking community/consumers and the technical people to do during a consultation.
What if the role of the technical person was to bring ALL of their expertise, experience, capability and wisdom? If what they offered the room was celebrated, not in a way that positions them as superior, but as people who speak a certain dialect that we all need to get to a viable option?
What if the non-technical people were also invited to bring ALL of their experience, capability and wisdom? If what they offered the room was celebrated, rather than feared or in a way that positions them as superior but as people who speak a different dialect that we all need to get to a viable option?
If we celebrated the fact that we need the diversity of views to deliver better solutions rather than creating environments where it becomes about ‘who gets their way’, it removes the drive to drop into “right & wrong”.
From the way technical people see the world, they are right. From the way lay people see the world, they are right … so what if we started with the possibility both are right AND both may be missing the perspective of the other way of looking at things?
It is an adjustment, not just for technical people, but for communities as well.
When there has been an historical imbalance of power, where the technical person makes all the decisions, consultations can become hijacked by people thinking that this is now their chance to dominate. But history shows us that, the way to address a power imbalance is not to flip the switch and feed all the power to the other side.
For example, our problems with gender inequality are not going to be solved through the creation of a female dominated society. It’s the over reliance on one frame of thinking about life that leads to imbalance of many kinds. Of course, it is important to remember that for those who are used to power, even offering balance in the power dynamic will feel like imbalance at first – that is a discomfort I can live with!
My favourite introduction at consultation sessions at the moment, is that we are here to be explorers and not lawyers. People have watched too many TV shows where lawyers ‘own the room’, outsmart their adversary, stretch the facts and deliver the clever and stinging insight that wins over the judge or jury.
We seem to be losing role models for how to explore different world views. You don’t see TV shows where someone spends time with an open mind and heart exploring something that was not previously understood. The open heart in this instance is a willingness to be wrong, a willingness to find out that our ‘right’ is right for us but may not be ‘right’ for everyone.
ABOUT JOEL LEVIN
Joel Levin is the founder and Managing Director at Aha! Consulting and has over 20 years experience working across Australia in a broad range of sectors.
His organisational, engagement and facilitation skills stem from a background in counselling, training, community work and senior management. In late July he will be facilitating an online workshop on managing outrage and opposition in the community engagement process.